It’s November, and there are rumours of exciting underwater activity at Chesil Cove in Dorset. WILL APPLEYARD decides to make an exception and dive after dark. Pictures by DAMIAN BROWN
TO BE HONEST, I’ve always had night diving filed in the liveaboard diving “box”, and even then I would probably only make the effort to take part in one or two token immersions during my time at sea.
So when I was invited to go on a UK night-dive with my regular dive-buddy Damian Brown, my “yes, I’d love to” was uttered with some hesitation.
Damian, who has a penchant for both macro photography and rather large sharks, had learnt through the diving grapevine that there was some great post-season diving to be had at Dorset’s Chesil Cove, with reports of octopus and ray sightings doing the rounds.
So, night-dive or day-dive, I just had to go along for the ride.
I might be a stranger to UK night-diving, but I’m no stranger to diving in the dark in the UK or indeed Chesil Cove, having dived there many times over the years during the spring and summer months.
In fact, we did attempt a night-dive at the cove back in summer 2015, but the sun just didn’t seem to want to set and the Cove House Inn pub, situated mere metres off the beach, eventually became just too much of a draw.
I’ve dived quite a few UK wrecks in total darkness during daylight hours too, so I guess I was qualified for what lay ahead!
CHESIL COVE IS DIVEABLE at any state of the tide, and any currents found there are usually weak and, at most, just swell.
The site is sheltered from both north and easterly winds, but anything coming in from the south or the west will make your entry or, more importantly, your exit from the water nearly impossible.
Not only that, but the visibility will be grim to say the least after a spell of, or during, questionable weather.
Chesil Cove sits at the end of the 18-mile-long Chesil Beach, where the pebbles eventually stop and Portland limestone begins.
A couple of wrecks lie quite close to each other, with the sparse remains of one (the Preveza) residing just a few metres from the shore.
The skeletal remains of the James Fennell and the Gertrude wrecks can be found in the area too, but they definitely require a boat to reach.
Damian and I made for the classic Chesil Cove entry-point an hour before sunset for a visibility check and to have all our gear in place for the dive before darkness came. A concrete slipway situated by a small car park allows reasonably easy access to the start of the beach proper, which, at its highest point, peaks at 11m above sea level.
This of course is no problem for those descending to the shoreline with weights, cylinders and other assorted cumbersome clobber, but just wait until you have to do it in reverse!
We weren’t the only guys heading for the beach that November evening. Chesil has a following of hardcore local divers who will be in the water whenever there’s a spell of good visibility, day or night.
Unlike the failed night-dive a year or so before, the glorious sunset came and went quickly, and we waded into the flat-calm water just after dark.
The temperature of the water at that time of year is around the 13°C mark, so although not super-cold by UK standards, for me it’s winter undersuit and Arctic hood time for sure.
Once we were far enough out to no longer feel our fins on the sea floor, we dumped our air and sank below with torches ablaze. It’s rare for me to dive without a camera anywhere these days, but from time to time I will leave it aboard the boat or in the van in order to take back only mental memories and absorb myself in the diving experience.
This was to be one of those dives, so I left Damian to the camerawork while I scouted out potential subjects.
ONCE YOU’RE SUBMERGED the seabed remains stony with a slight swell, and at the 6-8m marks, stones give way to sand and patches of rock. The 8-15m regions provide the best habitat for all the good stuff, where the rocks become bigger and further apart – providing more shelter for those that choose to live there.
First up on the list of night-time visitors to our torchlight would be a dainty little sea-slug hanging from a piece of flora. This striking example we later identified as Polycera quandrillineata or the four-lined nudibranch, which refers to the four lines found on its back.
Those not familiar with UK diving may be surprised to learn that quite a variety of sea-slugs can be found in home waters, with new species being identified all the time.
We moved on, and with our torch-beams sweeping the seabed I wasn’t surprised to greet a couple of cat sharks sprawled out on the sand.
These little fellas are plentiful in the UK, but make for excellent subjects photographically as they don’t appear to be too fussed by approaching divers.
We passed plaice and several flounders on the sand, but no undulate or thornback rays. The common lobsters were out in full force, with the blue hue of their shells ever more impressive under torchlight.
I was delighted to eventually find a lone John Dory after the 10-minute mark. I had dived with them there during the summer and observed them feeding on juvenile fish species, but really only through my camera lens when I think back on it.
They’re not that bothered about divers either, and appeared even more inquisitive during the night than during the day – perhaps they were interested in their own reflection in our camera or mask lenses?
The markings on this species are particularly striking and it’s believed that the large dark dot on its side is used to flash an “evil eye” if danger approaches.
Nobody really seems to know the origin of the name John Dory, which is a shame because it’s quite specific, but we do know that these fish grow to a maximum size of 65cm and are solitary hunting creatures.
Their olive colouring against a pitch-back background I think accentuates their almost prehistoric appearance, and I’m sure they must be a fearful sight for any unfortunate critter in their path.
One of the advantages I’ve decided that UK night-diving offers over liveaboard night-diving overseas is that you’re not constantly finding yourself being flashed by other divers’ torchbeams – apart from your buddy’s, of course. Not having to think about being pierced by approaching lionfish makes for a more relaxing night-time adventure too, in my opinion!
We left JD to it and finned further west into slightly deeper water still. Navigation is easy when diving at Chesil Cove – simply remember that “out is west, home is east” and, providing you remembered to bring your compass, you won’t go far wrong.
One creature that always captivates me under water, and one that we met on this evening, is the cuttlefish. I’m always struck not only by how cuttlefish look like something from another time, but surely they’re also from another planet?
They belong to the Cephalopoda family that includes squid and octopus, and it’s said among divers that if you hold your hand out and mimic their tentacles with your fingers, they will approach you as if investigating one of their own.
I have yet to see this theory work in practice, but I like the idea! As with octopuses, how such creatures are able to change their colouring and texture to match their surrounding is difficult to comprehend.
We approached our agreed halfway point of 20 minutes and consulted our compasses. At this point we turned to head east for a slow fin back towards the shore, with thoughts of local ale and log-fires beginning to register.
JD PUT IN AN APPEARANCE again, as did several more cat sharks. It’s usually at this point during a camera-free dive that I begin to wish I had brought it with me – when the cold starts to creep into the bones, and fiddling with camera settings and strobes can often help you to focus on something other than shivering.
Damian drew my attention to a tiny shrimp poking out of its rocky home and I hovered just above the sand while he fired off a few shots.
For me, the intensity of a dive becomes amplified at night, and though your field of view is far more restricted than in daylight, you feel that the environment is alive with unseen creatures.
As the water grew shallower, a slight swell began to increase and sand began to turn back to stones. We hadn’t found the octopus or any of the rays, but we had embarked on an adventure, and surely an adventure isn’t an adventure if you’ve successfully completed all your objectives? The missing objectives only make you want to come back for more.
I just love Chesil Cove, and I know for the local hardcore divers I mentioned earlier that it’s a very special place indeed. If you want to dive among the critters we encountered and more, then really the best time to visit is during the summer, and at that time it’s even possible to dive with non-native triggerfish.
Our experience does however go to show that it’s possible to grab some fabulous UK diving opportunities well after the official “season” has come to an end, in this case in late November. I’m looking forward to visiting the area again in the springtime, when the cycle of underwater life starts all over again.
• To reach Chesil Cove, head for Portland on the A354 / Portland Beach Road, drive up Chiswell and unload gear at the top of Brandy Row, where the ramp to the beach begins. Kit hire and air-fills from Underwater Explorers, www.underwaterexplorers.co.uk or Dive Beyond, www.divebeyond.co.uk
Appeared in DIVER February 2017